San Diego State run to historic Final Four reflects college basketball's changing landscape

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When he finished cutting down one of the nets at the KFC Yum! Center, Brian Dutcher stretched his arms into the air and fell backwards off a ladder in a show of trust.

The sixth-year head coach landed in the arms of his San Diego State men’s basketball players, who with a 57-56 victory against Creighton on Sunday became one of three teams heading to the Final Four of the NCAA men's tournament for the first time in program history.

Among the jubilant Aztecs were players like Darrion Trammell, who transferred in from Seattle University after starting his career at a community college, and Lamont Butler, a junior who signed with San Diego State out of high school and scored a game-high 18 points in the win over the Bluejays.

There was Matt Bradley, who could have slogged through a 3-29 senior season at California had he not entered the transfer portal, and there was Nathan Mensah, a fifth-year veteran who dedicated the victory to the seniors on the Aztecs’ 2019-20 team that went 30-2 only to have March Madness canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The dream that they had,” Mensah said, “we’re making it a reality.”

San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher holds the remains of the net after the Aztecs defeated Creighton to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA men's tournament.
San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher holds the remains of the net after the Aztecs defeated Creighton to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA men's tournament.

During a season where parity has reigned supreme, it’s fitting that fifth-seeded San Diego State reached the Final Four with a roster that reflects college basketball’s changing landscape. Of the nine Aztecs who clocked more than 14 minutes during an Elite Eight matchup that was decided by a Trammell free throw in the final seconds, four joined the program through the NCAA transfer portal.

“They all come here to win,” Mensah said of the newcomers, “so they are ready to sacrifice anything.”

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Now, for a spot in the national championship game, Dutcher and company must take down ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic, which has four transfers averaging more than 15 minutes per game during its unprecedented run to Houston’s NRG Stadium. The matchup shows acquiring talent through the portal is a key to keeping up with the times, but Dutcher said maintaining a core group of returners amid widespread roster turnover is just as important.

“Our culture is set by our four- and five-year players,” Dutcher said Saturday. “The transfers come in, they have to have a culture to come to. We're not trying to add nine, 10 new guys every year.”

Minutes after Trammell was named the South Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, his mother, Diema Adams-Parham, said the culture — “and the beautiful weather” — is what ultimately sold her son on joining San Diego State.

“No one’s above each other,” Adams-Parham said. “Everybody is equal, and they play for each other.”

When Trammel signed with the Aztecs, he said he knew they had “the DNA of a team that goes far in March.” Not every player in their deep rotation stuffs the stat sheet, but as a whole their defense is overwhelming. San Diego State ranks first among Final Four contenders and fourth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) and held Creighton to just 23 second-half points.

Dutcher on Saturday said he and his staff don’t target players in the portal who tell them, “Coach, I'm leaving a program. I'm scoring 18 for them. I'm going to score 24 for you.”

Instead, they make high-level defending a prerequisite for playing time; and it’s paying off.

“Depth isn't a strength unless they embrace it,” Dutcher said after Sunday’s win. “This team embraces it.”

Two years after the NCAA passed legislation allowing players to transfer once without sitting out a year and separate legislation granting name, image and likeness (NIL) rights — leading some to stay in school longer — the impact is reflected in a historic Final Four field. The upcoming national semifinals are the first without a No. 1, 2, or 3 seed — and, according to ESPN, the first without a single McDonald’s All-American — since 1979.

It’s a culture shift that is benefiting places like San Diego State, making it possible for them to compete with some of the best.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve never recruited, like, a superstar,” Mensah said. “In our own ways, we see each other as superstars.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: San Diego State's Final Four berth reflects college basketball changes